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A One-Day Search for the UK's Best Chicken Wing

Or: how Britain looked beyond breast and came to host Europe's largest chicken wing festival.

by Ryan Bassil; photos by Christopher Bethell
11 September 2019, 8:00am

All photos by Christopher Bethell

“First you sauce your meat, then you eat your meat.”

So says DJ Barbeque, introducing this year’s wing-eating competition at London Wing Fest – an event where chicken fans will consume 120,000 wings over one September weekend. In his Washington DC growl, DJ Barbeque then goes on to announce the contestants: 16 names ranging from the basic-sounding (‘Jake’ and ‘Alice’) to competitive-eating epithets (‘Razor’ and ‘The Ruddock’). “I hope I don’t shit myself,” says one, called Nick, as the contenders prepare to eat 12 hot wings in as little time as possible.

The context: London Wing Fest (which also runs in Manchester) calls itself Europe’s “largest and most popular chicken wing festival”. Originally conceived as a small street-food pop-up just off east London’s Gillett Square in 2014, the event – helmed by Richard Thacker, co-founder of canalside restaurant Randy's Wing Bar – brings in 35 different wing vendors, plus fairground rides, axe-throwing and more general festival scenes, but with chicken replacing class As as the side-order to drinking.

Wing fest
Richard Thacker, Wing Fest founder, left; DJ Barbecue, right
Wing Fest 18

Man reportedly first ate chicken in 5th century BC. Since then, in Britain – beside a culture of fried chicken shops, buoyed by immigrant communities – it's mostly been eaten as barely seasoned breasts and thighs, with the humble wing considered a scrap to discard or use for stock. Wings have of course soared into mainstream popularity in the US for the last few decades – estimates (from a 2,000-person poll commissioned by a sauce brand, mind you) say the average American consumes 18,000 wings in their lifetime. But as large-scale jamborees such as Wing Fest pop-up across England, it’s clear that change is afoot. The UK has long been home to the full roast bird, so how did the wing find a foothold here?

Some might reason the cultural export of Nando’s from South Africa to the UK helped wings ascend in price and popularity in this country. Students and couples often slam back the brand’s infamous Wing Roulette platter, bringing a touch of spice to a palette raised on Birds Eye chargrills and chicken à la king. The wings on offer at Wing Fest aren't all deep-fried in the recognisable chicken-shop style. Among a majority-white yet mixed crowd, it feels like the wing’s big moment is due in part to the UK’s ever-rising food-truck and small-plate scene, and our collective desire to try something new: in this case, a wide-ranging fusion of cuisines – from a sweet lemongrass satay wing by Makatcha Eats to Dookies Grill’s ‘Jerk’n’Cheesy’ wings, made with Red Stripe and parmesan sauce; and yes, countless variations on the buffalo wing.

Wing fest 19
Wing fest 19

That’s something founder Richard tells me, speaking between puffs on a roll-up held with buffalo sauce-sauce stained hands, moments after we’ve necked a pickle-back shot. Before meeting him, I’d ruthlessly pictured Richard as a square picking up on a trend and making a quick buck. Instead, I’m an asshole, and he’s the son of a chicken farmer. “My old man was like, 'don’t go to uni, do something with chicken wings',” he tells me.

Back when he was younger, Richard says his father could barely shift chicken wings. Instead they’d ship ‘em off across the world, mainly to Asian markets, leaving the breast in England. Yet as the world has become smaller, with dishes looking pretty on Instagram, the popularity of the wing has increased. Crucially, that’s because it’s small and cheap. Though Richard tells me price per kilo has doubled over the years – proof of the popularity of the wing – it’s a relatively affordable dish. Sure, the UK has famously been home to cheese festivals and village fetes, but the rise of ‘foodie’ culture has allowed the wing to flourish.

Wingfest 19
Eddie, James, Pete and Angelo
Wingfest 19
Colleen

“Buffalo is my favourite – I like the spiciness, the zing of it,” says 39-year-old Colleen from Tooting. This is her second year here and she’s come because “it’s something a bit different”, though that mainly involves a desire to “eat more chicken”. The same goes for a group of lads from south east London, in their thirties and doing Wing Fest for a second time too. Eddie, James, Pete and Angelo count themselves as fried chicken fans – Pete tells me his mum used to work in a chicken shop, in Belvedere – but they’ve come here for the overarching wing experience.

In aesthetic practice, this is largely American: you're given a free trucker hat upon entry and bourbon is served by the bucket-load. Buffalo wings, the event's crown jewel, were born in the US after all, as per a contested backstory. By one account, Buffalo, New York bar owner Teressa Bellissimo stumbled into 'inventing' them in 1964. As this Daily Beast piece notes, a black man, John Young, claimed his saucy wings originated at a similar time, coated in what he called mambo sauce. In either case, buffalo wings are entwined in American culture now. By proxy, Wing Fest has a touch of American romanticism about it.

But remember: this is also Britain and, a gentrified take on the wing at that, and so, large festival size speakers blast Dizzee Rascal’s “Bonkers” – a song that sits in the deranged pantheon of cherry-flavoured-vodka tunes that sum-up the Keep Calm and Get Fucked atmosphere of Great Britain, alongside Charli XCX's ecstatic “I Love It”, as written for Swedish duo Icona Pop, and the manic euphoria of The Black Eyed Peas' “I’ve Got A Feeling”. I can understand the appeal of a festival, however wild the music may be.

Wingfest19
Wing Fest 19

Back at the Wing Eating Competition, the stage is a glorious mess of faces smeared orange with sauce, bucketloads of used wet wipes, and spat out bones. Eventually, we have a winner. The world record for most wings eaten in one sitting may be 501 wings in 30 minutes, but a South African man by the name of Paul has done well to knock his 12 wings out in something like two minutes. His prize? Pride, some Frank’s Hot Sauce merch and potentially the shits. Like a lot of people here, this is also his second time at Wing Fest. As he tells me when I bump into him later, he entered the competition last year but came second. Did he do anything to practice this time around? “Basically, I eat a lot of wings,” he says with a smile.

On one level, wing culture in the UK is an extension of just about any shared dining experience: it creates an almost cultish closeness, a warmth dunked in the intimacy of a dish you have to eat with your bare hands. But, as with any food trend, there are levers pulling at the price and branding of the product – thus, a 10,000-strong festival in Stratford’s Olympic Park, where people pay £1 for a wing (plus ticket price). What was once seen as a crappy piece of food has been given a makeover and bumped up. Whether that’s a good thing is refutable: there are nuances. However, one thing is certain. The once bone dry, potato crusted fingers of Britain's money-makers are getting stickier, coated in varying types of glaze.

@ryanbassil / @christopherbethell